Kimchi Crisis: A Story of South Korean Development

This post was originally submitted as a Commodity Chain assignment for Professor Michael Watt’s class, “Introduction to Development,” in Fall 2010.

Amidst wariness of a change in leadership occurring in its bellicose northern neighbors and anxiety over hosting this year’s G-20 summit, South Korea faced a crisis of equal or greater proportions when the already inflating prices for Napa cabbage – the variety used for making kimchi, the nation’s darling staple food – skyrocketed in early October of this year. That this month marked the beginning of the traditional gimjang season where families gather to pickle the upcoming year’s stock of kimchi, heightened the demand for Napa cabbage precisely during the time of its greatest scarcity. An abnormally wet harvest season, adverse to the necessary conditions for growing Napa cabbage, triggered last month’s inflation of Napa cabbage, though South Korea has been experiencing a steady incline in fresh food prices for some time. The literature that documented what some referred to as “a national tragedy” (McDonald) rung appropriately with undertones of urgency since Koreans eat kimchi at every meal, often taking emergency supplies with them even when travelling. Amidst this shortage, a complex trade relationship between China and Korea; mounting pressures due to Korea’s increased role in the global market; and the dynamics between agents of kimchi distribution, all lend a narrative of the tension between Korea’s largely state-led efforts at domestic development and its assertion as a recent arrival on the global market dominated by a circuit of Northern nations.

In general, Koreans tend to prefer Korean-made kimchi as a matter of national pride. A 2005 incident of multiple cases of parasite eggs found in manufactured kimchi, inaccurately sensationalized by the press as a result of low standards of hygiene in Chinese-produced kimchi, only served to exacerbate a disdain towards inferiorly perceived brands of Chinese kimchi (Tsai). Still, in 2005, 60% of Korean restaurants served Chinese-made kimchi and Korea imported up to 85,266 tons of kimchi from China compared to its estimated annual consumption of 1.53 million tons of kimchi (Tsai). Furthermore, South Korea and China have a burgeoning relationship of trade, marked by a 2005 figure of “$100 billion-worth of bilateral trade” (The Economist), with China being South Korea’s biggest export market. And so, it was with a familiar reluctance that the South Korean government announced that it would import 100 tons of cabbage through the Korea-Agro Fisheries Trade Corporation at the end of October (Kim, Tong-hyung). Furthermore, the government also implemented a zero tariff policy on Napa cabbages in mid-October (Kim, Cynthia).

The measures taken by the state to relieve the pressure on Korean families due to high prices of cabbage pay homage to a history of high state involvement in South Korea’s development. Given South Korea’s near religious obsession with kimchi, this intervention alleviates what is considered a matter of both basic human rights (food security) and national economic stability. In fact, the spike in kimchi prices, while aggravated by unfavorable weather conditions during harvest time, also files suit with a general streak of a rising CPI, especially due to inflation in prices of fresh foods. According to an editorial posted on http://www.koreanherald.com, The CPI climbed from 2.6% in August, 3.6% in September, then 4.1% in October. This increase was especially poignant in light of the Lee Administration’s recent “changing course from a ‘business-friendly’ economic policy to a policy crafted in favor of the underprivileged” (www.koreanherald.com). The editorial advocated for the implementation of higher interest rates in order to control the current ‘agflation’ (inflation led by rises in agricultural commodity prices). However, the current political climate characterized by the predominantly ‘Western’ disapproval of currency manipulation and subsequent concern of the potential imminence of a global currency war would curb considerations of greater state management of South Korea’s won (www.koreanherald.com) – an especially sensitive apprehension, considering the impending G-20 Summit that would soon take place in Seoul.

Taking queue from state example, Korean kimchi manufacturers and retailers have also done their part to alleviate the crisis, relying on increased imports of Chinese-farmed Napa cabbage and Chinese-made kimchi. The finicky prejudice against Chinese-made kimchi results in a Chinese kimchi industry marked by “high competition and low profit” as well as the unpredictable lifetime of factories (Tsai). To add more complexity to this relationship, kimchi factories in China are owned by both South Korean kimchi retailers in addition to Chinese ones (Tsai). Then, South Korean retailers and distributors vary from major Korean grocery stores who order the cheaper variety of Chinese kimchi (where value is mostly added in resale,) to South Korean kimchi companies who own and manage factories in China (adding value through branding). These South Korean kimchi companies take advantage of cheaper labor and ingredients available in China. Ironically, in the lead up to the 2005 kimchi-parasite egg scandal, Chinese authorities encouraged South Korean businessmen to hire unskilled peasants, which led to less-than-par hygienic practices in South Korean kimchi company-owned factories in China that resulted in the tainted kimchi (Tsai). One Chinese kimchi factory manager viewed the wrongful ascription of blame to Chinese kimchi manufacturers as a tactic to protect South Korean domestic kimchi production (Tsai). A legitimate speculation considering the careful maintenance of a trade surplus between Korea and China (Schneider) and the existence of organizations like the Korean Peasants League, a progressive lobbying group of farmers, that has taken active positions against an increasing volume of imports. In any event, Chinese kimchi production seems a captive industry (Gereffi) to the caprice of South Korean demand, stoked in times like the current Korean cabbage shortage.

While kimchi may not be a heavily traded global commodity, its relevance in the identity of South Koreans as a point of national pride and honor, and the flux of trade during the ‘kimchi crisis’ in order to manage the inflation of cabbage prices, paint a telling story of Korea’s relationships with the United States and China. In this moment of the nation’s development, South Korea is sandwiched between a negative pressure from the United States in intervening in its currency market and a reliance on imports of cabbage and kimchi from rural areas of China at a time of agfaltion. This points to a fundamental point of tension in Korea’s development where the nation is at once arriving at an influential position on the global stage of international economic relations and concerned with the social welfare of its citizenry pertaining to their individual human and economic rights.

Commodity Chain Diagrams (Before and After)

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Before

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After

Works Cited

Gary Gereffi, Global Production Systems and the Third World development, in B. Stallings (ed)., Global Change, Regional Response. Cambridge University Press.

Kim, Cynthia J. “Koreans in kimchi crunch.” The Korea Herald (10/05/2010). Web. 10 November 2010.

Kim, Da-ye. “Korea all-out to secure cabbages amid kimchi crisis.” The Korea Times (10/01/2010). Web. 10 November 2010.

Kim, Tong-hyun. “Uneasiness grows over Chinese cabbage crush.” The Korea Times (10/22/2010). Web. 10 November 2010.

Kim, Yon-se. “BOK dilemma as prices rise, won strenghthens.” The Korea Herald (10/04/2010). Web. 10 November 2010.

McDonald, Mark. “Rising Cost of Kimchi Alarms Koreans.” The New York Times (10/14/2010). Web. 10 November 2010.

“Of Cabbages and Kims: Forget mad dictators. The price of cabbage is what really worries Koreans.” Global Politics: Asia (08/07/2010). The Economist. Web Blog Entry. 10 November 2010.

Schneider, Howard. “For U.S., free-trade agreement could be backdoor to China.” The Washington Post (11/08/2010). Web. 10 November 2010.

The governance of global value chains, Gary Gereffi, John Humphrey, Timothy Sturgeon Review of International Political Economy 12:1 February 2005: 78-104

“The kimchi wars: South Korea and china duel over pickled cabbage” The Economist (11/17/2005). Web. 10 November 2010.

Tsai, Ting-I. “Korea swallows its pride in Chinese kimchi war.” Online Asia Times (11/22/2005). Web. 10 November 2010.

“[Editorial] Who isn’t worried?” The Korea Herald (11/03/2010). Web. 10 November 2010.

Discourses of Camptown Prostitution in the Global Era

This post was originally submitted as a Finals assignment for Professor Gillian Hart’s class, “History of Development and Underdevelopment,” in Spring 2011.

On the heels of a period of rapid economic growth during the 1970s, the 1980s onward saw the implementation of South Korean Development shift from policies focused on a carefully managed, state-driven economic growth to ones of economic liberalization, democratization and decentralization in the context of an ever-globalizing and interconnected world. Such changes in the official discourse of South Korean Development both affected and were affected by issues surrounding camptown prostitutes in United States military bases stationed throughout the nation. Starting the 1980s, a long history of entrenched political and military entanglement with the U.S. culminated in a brewing anti-American sentiment amongst the citizenry, along with a more distinct sense of South Korean nationalism. This complicated relationship with the U.S.; a state-led, burgeoning women’s policy during; women’s and labor movements; and the migration of camptown women to the United States through international marriage all took part in changing the frame within which camptown prostitutes were viewed. In the decades following 1980, the discourse surrounding camptown women reflected the changes occurring on national and international scales. Following the economic, social, and cultural liberalization of the 1980s, the discourse of camptown prostitution underwent a shift from a state-defined, nationalist orientation to one of anti-imperialist, dissident nationalism in the 1990s, and finally one embodying a feminist ideal in the 2000s. This evolving discourse, however, failed to engage with the prostitutes themselves until the sex industry changed in the mid-2000s to see the increase of foreign prostitutes and decline of Korean women to international marriages with American G.I.s. and better economic opportunities.

During the 1970s, the state imbued military prostitution with a patriotic bent, in which prostitutes were used to regulate U.S.-R.O.K. military relations. Here, the state identified prostitutes as “[diplomats] fulfilling [their] duties to the nation by keeping U.S. interests engaged” (Cho 2008: 107). The roots of militarized prostitution lay within the architecture of a nation with a prolonged history of military engagements. In the case at hand, military prostitution amongst Korean women and American G.I.s can be traced as far back as 1945, at the onset of the first U.S. occupation of South Korea. Following an uncertain liberation from a long history of Japanese occupation, and economic destitution, many women resorted to prostitution as a means of survival (Soh 2009: 50). Since then, over a million Korean women have served as sex workers while both the Korean and American governments participate in regulating this industry (K. Moon 1998: 1,2). For example, during the Camptown Clean-Up Campaign (1971-1976), South Korean officials subjected prostitutes to regular screenings for venereal disease and educational seminars about racism in order to accommodate the American men they served (K. Moon 1998: 144). Katharine Moon argues that South Korea pursued camptown clean-up policies, which U.S. officials in Korea had long pushed for, came as a reaction to the changing power dynamics between the two countries. South Korea withdrew 50,000 troops from Vietnam the previous year (1970), and relinquished a large part of its leverage for any U.S.-R.O.K. negotiations (K. Moon 1998: 150, 151). In the years following, South Korea’s relationship with the United States grew even more complicated. In 1980, a South Korean military, propped up by the United States, open fired on thousands of protesters in the province of Gwangju during a coup d’etat. This event triggered the beginnings of a brewing anti-American sentiment (Cho 2008: 124) that lent the frame for anti-imperialist nationalist discourses surrounding camptown prostitution in following decades.

In 1980, the introduction of democratic and liberal reforms by the state made space for the empowerment of a grassroots women’s movements in South Korea. A dialectically driven progression of the women’s movement by both the state and grassroots movements during the 1980s would set the conditions for the instrumental use of camptown issues in the early 1990s. In the 1980s, Chun Doo Hwan took over the presidency after the assassination of previous president, Park Chung Hee (1979), and the Gwangju Uprising. In doing so, Chun Doo Hwan lay to rest three decades of military dictatorship in South Korea and introduced a slew of democratic and liberalizing reforms. Starting 1980, the state-introduced policies of economic, social, and cultural liberalization set the conditions for the rise of the women’s movement. In April 1983, the Korean Women’s Development Institute was established as a research center collecting data on women’s lives, analyzing problems of discrimination against women, and assessing their needs as potential and actual mothers. In December of the same year, the state inaugurated the Deliberatory Council for Women’s Policy as a mechanism to mediate policies concerning women to promote gender equality (S. Moon 2000: 132). On the other hand, economic liberalization forced the state to pursue new policy areas and modify its role by facilitating its decline as a developmental state (S. Moon 2000: 138).  Seungsook Moon argues:

The conscious focus on gender equality as a policy goal demarcates the rise of women as a potential political force. In the context of electoral democracy, this means that women are viewed as exercising electoral power. In other words, women are no longer merely the object of state mobilization or the tools to be used to implement a particular policy. This shift heralds a complicated relationship between women and the state in the decades to come. (S. Mook 2000: 133, 134)

In accordance with Moon’s analysis, women’s political empowerment opened a space for the rise of a grassroots women’s movement. However, this movement was led largely by women labor organizations that excluded camptown prostitutes in the negotiations of women’s rights. This exclusion drew from a history of a societal marginalization of prostitutes as a necessary, disposable population that barricaded Korean women of higher status from sexual violation by American men (Cho 2008: 112). The momentum of the women’s movement along with growing hostilities towards the Untied States and Korean government throughout the 1980s allowed for the figure of the camptown prostitute to be seized as an allegory of “anti-imperialist desire” in the early 1990s (Cho 2008: 115). In this way, the discourse surrounding camptown prostitutes changed hands from the state to lower-middle class women whose feminist issues were subsumed by the rhetoric of nationalism in the 1980s into the 1990s. In October 1992, the brutal murder of a camptown sex worker by an American GI launched the issue of camptown prostitutes into national media spotlight, marking “a turning point at which the [camptown prostitute] as a symbol of a colonized nation was transformed from the shameful sex worker in exile to the nation’s daughter welcomed home” (Cho 2008: 115).

In the wake of Yun Geum-I’s 1992 murder, the camptown prostitute came “out of hiding and into public view as a figure that embodied all forms of oppression, particularly because [she was] the [aftereffect] of division and war” (Cho 1998: 116). Yun’s murder indicated the urgent need for the divided Koreas to be unified, the peninsula to be de-militarized, and the American troops to be withdrawn as soon as possible. With the rise of counter hegemonic minjung (democracy) movements throughout the 1980s, the sensational murder of Yun Geum-I elevated the camptown prostitutes status as a martyr of “dissident nationalism” (Cho 1998: 116).  Meanwhile, the prostitutes themselves were only minimally engaged in discussions of their own oppression. Demonstrations were often led by advocacy groups and active civil society participants like students and unions. For example, following the death of Yun Geum-I, local camptown inhabitants expressed their personal grief and political discontent not only to local U.S. commands and Korean authorities, but also to the central Korean government. In early November 1992, numerous civic groups including advocacy organizations for gijichon women and children, the Dongucheon Citizens’ Committee, taxi union, teachers’ union, and student associations protested G.I. brutality and previous neglect by local Korean police and mass media. The protesters held large demonstrations at the front gates of the U.S. Second Infantry Division (Moon 2004: 9). Residential activism and local empowerment around the U.S. Bases grew more focused and potent throughout the 1990s as local autonomy laws of 1991 and 1995 legalized and encouraged the political participation of local citizens through elections, petititons, and other forms of political pressure on local government. By 2000, local officials learned that U.S. base-related issues were important in election campaigns (Moon 2004: 12). In this way, the 1990s gave rise to a growing awareness amongst the populace about issues of military prostitution around U.S. military bases in Korea. However, this awareness was politically charged and used instrumentally to tout the recent anti-imperialist ideals as well as advocate for further liberalizing and democratizing policies like decentralization. Moon writes,

Even though some conscientious activists stayed focused on improving the daily welfare, economic livelihood, and the physical and emotional well-being of [camptown] women and their children, most of the larger and more vocal groups framed the gijichon problem as a matter of sovereignty, nationalism, and ‘anti-Americanism’ (Moon 2004: 13).

As such, the prostitutes themselves remained subjugated within the confines of discourses shaped by others throughout the 1990s.

In the 2000s, militarized prostitution in the camptowns became reshaped by the development of “industry-style prostitution” in broader society. Here, growth of the adult entertainment industry created a host of new types of sexual labor offer prostitution as a byproduct of legal personal care services at such places like massage parlors, bathhouses, and barbershops since the late 1980s. Women in these businesses turn to the camptowns on weekends to earn extra money or to meet prospective husbands among the American soldiers. Since the 1990s, the sex trade in South Korea experienced an influx of foreign women from “third world countries.” Due to continued economic success and an enriched domestic economy, numbers of young Korean women in the sex industry have declined significantly (Soh 2008: 51). In an ironic, and rare case (according to my research) of self-advocacy, Korean prostitutes who remain in the sex industry criticize business owners for the “unpatriotic” hiring of foreign women, who they believe rob Korean sex workers of the opportunity to help the national economy by earning foreign currency. In this way, they reinforce the patriotic rhetoric of the 1970s. Still, the influx of illegal foreigners, mostly Filipinas and Russian women, simply marks a shift in the demographic of populations subject to the oppression of the sex industry.

Meanwhile, recent discourses of the camptown women have sought to move away from the masculinist, nationalist-oriented discourses of the 1980s, and argue from the perspective of the prostitutes. One such discussion comes from Grace Cho, who writes, “For feminists especially, the [camptown prostitute] became a site of negotiating meanings about female subjectivity in the Korean diaspora, about investing the female subject with the capacity to negotiate her own meanings” (Cho 2008: 119). Here, Cho’s argument accounts for the hundred thousand women who have migrated to the United States through marriage to U.S. servicemen. She argues that military brides are the “invisible backbone of the Korean American community” in that sponsorship by one of these hundred thousand women was the most common route for Korean immigrants to the U.S. since the Korean War (Cho 2008: 140). She argues that decades of marginalization of the camptown prostitutes, the collective ‘forgetting’ of their identities, has become part of the Korean adoption of the ‘American Dream.’ The Korean camptown prostitutes of the 1970s an 1980s viewed either death or marriage to an American as the sole means of escaping camptown lives. These routes are more linked than they appear since in marriage, the women often laid to rest their old identities in shame and embarrassment, and as a condition of achieving the American dream. She writes,

…perhaps it is the Korean diaspora that has been most physically invested in reading her mutually inconsistent fragments through a project of memory that projects a new image into the space of what has been forgotten…[this] diasporic “frame of cultural identity [is] determined not through ‘return’ but through difference,” and therefore her haunting effects have been uneven. Some would seek to find this woman by creating a vision of her, and others would reject her, for not seeing her is a condition of the American dream. (125)

And so, it is in the loss of self-definition that the Korean camptown prostitute is finally imbued with her own agency. Her escape from camptown life and purposeful shedding her old identity give birth to a new generation of Korean Americans defined by the absence of the scarlet letter worn by their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts in Cho’s narrative.

This exposition has explored the historical and geographic contexts for the changing discourse of militarized prostitution in South Korea. In my research, I found very little about grassroots movements by the prostitutes themselves and have interpreted that as a lack of them, for the most part, in comparison to the academic literature written about camptown prostitution – admittedly, a rather severe inference considering the limited scope of my research. In more recent writings, especially feminist critiques of dissident nationalist discourses, some writers sought a bottom-up reading of camptown prostitution by conducting ethnographies and research amongst the women, but these did not accompany initiatives against oppressive institutions of the sex industry by the women themselves. Nevertheless, the most recent research shows a significant decline in Korean women in the South Korean sex industry, and an influx of foreign women. Additionally, many Korean women have escaped the sex industry through international marriage. Meanwhile, the sex industry in Korea continues to proliferate, now “[generating] more money that the state’s annual budget” (Cho 2008: 106). The discourses surrounding the camptown prostitutes from the 1980s to the 2000s – ranging from ones of a patriotic nationalism to anti-imperialist, dissident nationalism, to the feminist critique of latter discourses – all embody a distinct Korean reaction to the processes of an increasingly globalized world like foreign relations, decentralization, and migration.

Works Cited

Cho, Grace M. Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Kim, Hyun Sook. “Yanggongju as an Allegory of the Nation: The Representation of Working       Class Women in Popular and Radical Texts.” Dangerous Women: Gender & Korean

Nationalism. Ed. Elaine H. Kim and Chungmoo Choi. New York, New York: Routledge, 1998. 175-201. Print.

Kim, Samuel S. “Korea and Globalization (Segyehwa): A Framework for Analysis.” Korea’s

Globalization. Ed. Samuel S. Kim. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 1-28. Print.

Moon, Seungsook. “Overcome by Globalization: The Rise of a Women’s Policy in South

Korea.” Korea’s Globalization. Ed. Samuel S. Kim. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 126-146. Print.

Moon, Katharine H.S. “Prostitute Bodies and Gendered States in U.S.-Korean Relations.”

Dangerous Women: Gender & Korean Nationalism. Eds. Elaine H. Kim and Chungmoo Choi. New York, New York: Routledge, 1998. 141-174. Print.

Moon, Katharine H.S. Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations. New

York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Moon, Katherine H.S. “Stars and Stripes and Sex: Nationalism and globalization in the Gijichon”

Women’s History in Modern Korea. Seoul Natinoal University, 2004.

Soh, Chung Hee. “Military prostitution and women’s sexual labour in Japan and Korea.” Gender

and Labour in Korea and Japan: Sexing class. Eds. Ruth Barraclough and Elyssa Faison. New York, New York: Routeledge, 2009. 44-59. Print.

Uncovering and Utilizing Uncertainty: Interdisciplinary Field Studies Majors (ISF) and their Personal/Academic Development during College

This post was originally submitted as an interview assignment for Professor Claire Talwalker’s class, “Scope of Methods and Research in International Area Studies,” in Fall 2011.

When first passing though the brick-laden Sather Gate at UC Berkeley’s campus as freshmen, students face a looming task – to define their academic interests with a particular major. Confronted with such an undertaking, college seniors, Adam and Jessica*, chose the Interdisciplinary Field Studies Major (ISF) to mitigate anxieties provoked by the uncertainty they associated with single-discipline majors; and to accommodate their diverse interests. Then, their personal and academic experiences in college revealed to them that this uncertainty would always exist. As such, Adam and Jessica’s college experiences helped them grow from students who chose ISF Majors in order to appease their fear and anxiety of uncertainty to ones who learned to be comfortable with uncertainty and even use it towards constructive personal and academic development.

During their freshmen and sophomore years, Adam and Jessica formed academic interests through extra-curricular activities they enjoyed outside the classroom. Nearing the end of their lower division studies, Adam and Jessica both grappled with the challenge of framing their interests within the scope of an academic major. For each, single-discipline majors provoked a certain anxiety resulting from their notions of different opportunity costs of limiting their coursework to one discipline. Adam and Jessica chose the ISF Major to alleviate this anxiety and to accommodate the diverse interests they’d formed through extra-curricular activities.

Adam chose ISF in order to accommodate his multi-disciplinary interests, “science and people,” and to appease his fear of limiting his career path in ways that contradicted his “adolescent fantasy” of his future. He felt, “the things that we can know for sure are kind of arguable. There’s art, there’s science, there’s the natural world,” but the things that really mattered to him, that he cared about, were other people – his relationships. He also loved sports, hiking, the outdoors, and Michael Crighton novels. Adam felt there was an “opportunity cost” to narrowing his academic studies to a single disciple. For Adam, choosing a major meant committing to the career path he imagined students in a particular major must take. He felt a tug towards science majors like Astronomy or Engineering, but liked “extra-curricular junk too much,” and didn’t want to settle for the demanding and anti-social work schedules he associated with students that graduate with such majors. In addition, social science majors like “Psychology” “ruled out being someone who could go on a hike and say, ‘oh that’s this kind of bird, that’s this kind of a tree, or did you know that rocks form this way?’” So, by considering the activities he enjoyed – engaging with people, hiking, reading science-fiction novels – Adam ruled out single-discipline majors because of his vision of what he did or did not want to his future self to be like. Then, he chose the ISF Major as a way to explore interests formed through his favorite activities in a way that would allow him to fulfill his vision of his future self.

Like Adam, Jessica also associated a certain anxiety with choosing a single-discipline major. This anxiety, along with multi-disciplinary interests formed in extra-curricular activities also led her to the ISF Major. Whereas choosing a single-discipline major made Adam feel anxious because of the resulting opportunity cost of certain “adolescent fantasies” of his future self, Jessica’s freshman self felt an urgent desire to absorb as much knowledge as fast as possible. Choosing a single-discipline major meant foregoing the wisdom gleaned from various disciplinary discourses and comparative analysis across several disciplines. For her, the opportunity cost of choosing single-discipline majors was limiting one’s access to the untapped realm of knowledge that lay beyond a single discipline. She recalled how, as a freshman, she would often sit in Moe’s, a local bookstore, perusing the critical theory section for hours to quench her once insatiable thirst for knowledge. She shares:

… when you enter school there are so many theorists you’ve never heard of before, so you have to figure out what people are talking about, you just want to grasp at everything so you understand all these different perspectives… when you first start [college]… you have very little knowledge of [critical theory]. I think I was just really excited by that, so I wanted to know everything.

In addition, one of Jessica’s extra-curricular activities began to form an academic curiosity that could only be appeased through multi-disciplinary study. During her freshman year, Jessica started working at Metta Center – an organization that draws from Ghandi’s political philosophy to promote nonviolence through education, discussion, and practitioning. Attending weekly “Hope Tanks” that brought together community members to talk about applying nonviolence, Jessica grew interested in Ghandi’s political philosophy and began to use her coursework to learn more.

It was kind of like, well I had this personal experience [of working at Metta Center], [and I thought] why is this political philosophy for me so appealing? Why does it make sense? What’s the grounding for it? And my academic studies were a way to ground that and make sense of it, so [my interest] wasn’t just like an emotional, fleeting, like ‘he’s so interesting, Ghandi, wow he’s such a saint,’ but also why does this make sense, and having a social, scientific basis to that.

In these ways, Adam and Jessica found themselves designing their own concentrations in the ISF Major during their freshmen and sophomore years of college – both as a way to appease their anxieties about uncertain futures or unknown realms of knowledge and to accommodate diverse interests formed in extra-curricular activities.

While Adam and Jessica entered the ISF Major as a way of appeasing different sorts of anxieties associated with uncertainty, they described how, in retrospect, their personal and academic experiences in college did not so much erase their fears of uncertainty, as much as they taught them to accept the unknown and use their anxiety about the future or about wanting to absorb as much knowledge as possible towards constructive personal and academic development.

As a freshman, Adam chose the ISF Major as an anxious response to his reluctance to narrow his vision of future career paths. In his interview, he described how his subsequent collegiate experiences did not necessarily lead him to a clearer picture of his career path in accordance with his adolescent dreams. Instead, college had only revealed to him just how uncertain the future can be. He described how his long-term college relationship played a major part in teaching him exactly this. Whereas he had previously felt confident in romantic relationships, being involved with his college girlfriend for two and a half years, then breaking up with her: “kind of fucked with me… that was just such an investment that I made at one point that I feel like coming out of that more than anything is what makes me a little less like [I did freshman year, like] I’m the shit, I know what’s up and I’m ready for anything.” Similarly, his experience in the ISF department did not necessarily guide him towards a clearer articulation of his post-collegiate path:

The whole structure of the department and of the faculty just doesn’t support – you don’t have a large support group of people who you know are interested in the same things who can offer you advice on what you’re into or who can point you in the directions of opportunities to pursue your interests, necessarily, and that’s just the nature of the department because its interdisciplinary. There’s a sense of community that I never really got to have, and a sense of coherence. It’s the other side of the coin. I don’t feel like I know a lot about any one thing.

However, having revealed to him the persistently uncertain quality of the future, these romantic and ISF-related experiences contributed to his accepting of the unknown and using uncertainty as an important tool for personal development. As an ISF major, Adam realized even single-discipline majors may seem to have clearer direction for the future, but are not always as certain as they seemed to him:

…just because you study in another major, those questions [of what I study, what it’s useful for, and where it’s going to take me] are easier to answer on paper or in a conversation, but it doesn’t effectively actually mean that in your life you’re gonna have a clear direction for yourself or get more satisfaction just because that you know that you did a certain sort of pre-set progression of things…

As such, uncertainty remains a function of the future for Adam (and others), regardless of how sure other single-disciplined majors may seem because of a preconceived notion of their eventual career paths. Finally, through his personal and academic collegiate experience of accepting his uncertain future, Adam saw himself grow from someone who at first feared the resulting anxiety of the unknown, to someone who now accepts uncertainty and considers it a positive part of his personal development.

The more you know, the more you know that you don’t know. But that doesn’t really make me that anxious [anymore]. I believe that I do know more, and I believe that, you know, that feelings of uncertainty are good. Questioning and being critical of yourself and other things, the world – that’s not a bad thing. So, my overall experience has been very great, and the anxiety that different experiences of mine have provoked, you know, are, it’s not bad, it’s anxiety, but doesn’t mean its bad – it’s something that [is] important to try to grapple with.

For Jessica, this process of familiarizing oneself with uncertainty occurred primarily through her academic experiences, particularly her relationship with knowledge. As a lower division student, she saw knowledge as “this thing out there that [she] needed to figure out and own…” Then, she realized that education was about more than just an indiscriminate ownership of knowledge and understanding all the ideas of different theorists. Instead, she describes how her academic experience has taught her the importance of developing one’s “own ideas” and “just being okay with not understanding everything.” As an example, she talks about her recent experience of reading an old freshman paper of hers for Peace and Conflicts Studies 10. Students were asked to locate a particular crisis in the world and describe how they would go about solving it. Justine chose the economic crisis in Zimbabwe and describes how she voraciously read as many books as she could until she prescribed a “gift economy” as the answer to Zimbabwe’s economic woes. Looking back, she says:

You keep learning more and then you realize wait I actually don’t know any of this stuff. I actually don’t know how to solve the crisis in Zimbabwe, which doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t write a paper on what things we could do and [that] I shouldn’t, in action, do something that might be appropriate to that situation, but just taking a moment to think, be present, think, and maybe be a little more careful, and not so voracious and over-excited [is important].

Indeed, Jessica realized how this sort of “slow, meticulous thinking,” and “just being okay not knowing, being uncertain about things” showed her how “sometimes you gotta just stop thinking ant realize that you gotta try things out first… see how that works, and be open to refining our ideas about things.” As such, her admitting and accepting of realms of knowledge beyond her reach provided her access to a space for dynamic solutions that may stray from discursive theoretical answers and the bounds of her own knowledge.

As lower division students, each had considered ‘choosing a major’ with a certain anxiety about an uncertain future or unknown realms of knowledge during their lower division years. They chose ISF as a way to mitigate their anxieties, and to accommodate diverse interests formed through extra-curricular activities. However, as seniors, they reminisced on their collegiate personal and academic experiences as only having revealed more uncertainty. Adam realized through romantic relationships that his future (and others’) would always remain uncertain to a degree. As a senior, Jessica reflected on her school assignments to similarly muse that there would always be more knowledge to discover. In recognizing that these uncertainties would exist, Jessica and Adam learned that things they didn’t know could be both drive positive personal growth and utilized for more practical academic analysis. When asked how they felt about their college experiences, Adam and Jessica relayed almost exact answers – “Oh man, it’s been like the best five years of my life” (Adam) and “One of the best times of my life.” (Jessica). In this way, familiarizing oneself with uncertainty may not only help with personal and academic development, but also lead to a sort of contentment where life remains in one’s grasp in the moments the matter most, the here and now, the very present.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.

Social Reciprocity in the Workplace: Staff-Customer/Inter-Staff Relations in Tio’s Mexican Restaurant

This post was originally submitted as a participant-observation assignment for Professor Claire Talwalker’s class, “Scope of Methods and Research in International Area Studies,” in Fall 2011.

 

Eduardo walks in – he’ll be bartending tonight. We’ve only worked together once before, but we seem to get along fine. He’s just started at the restaurant and has only been working here a week or so. I, myself, only started a month ago. I shoot the breeze with Eduardo for a while – ask him why he has a black eye and a busted lip. He’s in the middle of telling me how he got mugged on 38th and Telegraph right in front of the Walgreens – distressed, almost, he was just waiting for the bus in broad daylight, on his way to work for chrissakes, and out of nowhere… but I have to interrupt him when some customers walk in. “Hey guys, come on in, sit anywhere you want – I’ll be right behind ya with some menus,” I say, with an exaggerated smile. Five guys, Cal students probably. They sit at Table B, and I bring them some menus and chips and salsa. When I look up, Eduardo has five glasses of ice water ready with quartered lemon slices sitting daintily on the rims. Nice.

I see Dennis come in early today, around six thirty – one of my regulars. I go in the kitchen, say a quick hello to Carlos and Rosalia, make Dennis a special basket of chips the way he likes (“Not too many, just a handful”), and give Eduardo a heads up that he’ll order the Sauvignon Blanc. Dennis sits in his usual spot at the end of the bar, and Eduardo asks me if I can uncork the wine bottle – they used a different kind of opener at his last spot. It goes a bit like this for about another hour or so. There’s a steady stream of tables and takeout orders till about seven o’clock. Then, seven forty-five rolls around and we get slammed. Ten tables come in within half an hour of each other.

At this point, I begin to run on a sort of automatic mode. I go through a mental check-list for each table – menus, chips, salsa, waters, give them some time, “Hey guys how we doin’ tonight, can I start you guys off with any drinks tonight?” “No? Ready to order, then?” This repeats, varying only in the wording. I notice that I have a list of prepared ways to ask if a table will want any drinks, or if they’re ready to order. In this way, my interactions with customers can sometimes be almost strategic – manipulative techniques for finding out a specific piece of information that I need to best deliver a product. Still, it’s important that this fact-finding occurs under a convincing veil of niceness. As a server, I want the customer to feel at ease, to like me or at least to feel indifferent enough towards me to make a clear assessment of the food. This type of hospitality conveys what we imagine will deliver the most satisfaction to the customer. I notice that this while I would deem this sort of hospitality, ‘friendliness,’ it differs from the sort of intimacy that denotes friendships.

Next, I drop off food to a table of three gentlemen who came in during the rush. After they’ve taken a couple bites, I return to their table and ask: “How’s the food tasting today, guys?” “It’s great, thanks,” one of the three gentlemen replies right back. After I leave, I notice him glance at some water on the plate – probably from the lettuce. It’s making his burrito soggy. From a distance it seems like they discuss it after I leave the table. I see his pal tip the plate and give it a glance, himself. Still, they don’t mention it. I realize that my question about the food can take on several different intentions. First, the question inquires into my performance as a server (How is my service? Did I forget extra hot sauce? Did I switch pinto for black beans?). Next, I ask the question on behalf of the kitchen staff (Are there any errors in the preparation? Is the food unexpectedly salty, undercooked, dry, etc.?). Lastly, I ask in the way the customer’s tablemate would ask, perhaps in the way the owner might be curious, (Do you like the food? Would you come back here? Would you tell your friends about it?). Each of these different types of inquiries provokes a different sort of emotionality in their respective responses. In the first instance, customer service associates with professionalism – the customer’s prerogative: any customer would be reasonably annoyed to receive pinto beans when s/he asked for black. Next, the question of food preparation involves a little more subjectivity (how salty is too salty?) there is a hurdle of vulnerability attached to asserting one’s personal taste preferences. Finally, the last type of inquiry usually necessitates a certain level of intimacy to candidly respond with a genuine assessment (imagine saying to the owner of a restaurant: “This place is so pretentious,” as you might to a friend). In this particular instance, the gentleman only holds me accountable for my portion of the product delivery – service. As if to say: Sure the burrito’s soaked, but hey it’s not directly her fault. Other times, I’m not so lucky. So, I decide to mention it to the kitchen, anyway – for all our sakes.

I check to see that Eduardo’s doing okay. He’s taking an order, but the couple people at the bar seem fine, so I grab a full bus tray of empty glasses and tread lightly through the swinging doors that lead into the kitchen – it’s not my domain and there are different rules, here. “Muchas gracias, Lorena,” Carlos says. Technically, busing trays is the kitchen’s responsibility, but they are slammed tonight with this unexpected rush. “Hey Carlos, do you think you could keep an eye on the lettuce? I think it might be watery or something ‘cause I saw some water on some of the plates…” “Okay, no problem Lorena,” he says. Unlike with the customers, I do feel a more authentic sort of camaraderie with my coworkers. If I see that Eduardo’s struggling to manage tables, and I have the time, I’ll gladly pick up his slack. This camaraderie develops not necessarily as a result of mutual interests or shared experiences outside of work like it did with the friends I grew up with, for example. It’s more that each of us recognizes that we comprise a team with a common goal of running the restaurant smoothly. As such, most of us watch each other’s backs and help each other out when we can. Usually, the favor is returned. In fact, getting along with one another holds benefits for all involved – employees, like myself, enjoy our jobs a little more, find time moving a bit faster, and manage our tables better with the support of our coworkers; customers maybe think the food tastes a little better or at least find themselves more satisfied with seamless and cooperative service delivery; and our owner sees his restaurant running smoothly, generating more future sales. Still, though our shared professional environment provides the initial context for this camaraderie, our friendships with one another seem to become more and more genuine as we continue to spend more time with each other – even if it is just at the workplace.

 

It’s another Monday at the restaurant, and this time I’m working with Anna. When I walk in, she’s eating a cheese flauta and fish taco at the bar. “Do I have time to grab some food?” I ask. She says she’ll clock in at four-thirty, and to do whatever I want. Anna’s also a server, but has been working at the restaurant since it opened last spring. Usually, when I work with Eduardo, I take the tables, and he takes the bar. Today, Anna says we can switch off taking tables whether customers sit at the bar or at a table. She goes into the office to print some more server checkouts and grabs us each a ticket book in which we’ll write our orders. I grab the keys to the stock room to restock the to-go items, napkins, and some other necessities. When I stop at the server checkout, I see a piece of paper taped onto the counter split in two columns – one for each of us, to mark our tables so we know whose turn it will be next. Anna is a diligent server. Her particularities can sometimes feel overbearing – like a passive aggressive roommate who does your dishes when you leave them in the sink for a day, but in the context of our workplace, I appreciate her attention to detail. We get along because we can depend on each other to create a work environment as resistant to errors and mistakes as possible.

With both Anna and I tending to tables, the workload turns out to be pretty manageable. Around eight-thirty or so, the dinner rush slows down for a bit and we find ourselves doing whatever we can to keep ourselves occupied – polishing silverware, sweeping under tables. She and I both tend to be more active in our serving styles – always finding things to do when the restaurant is slow (she, a bit more so than myself). We feed off each other’s energies, and soon enough: the soda cooler has fresh ice, there are back-ups of sliced fruit for drinks in the walk-in refrigerator, all the bus trays have been reset with new ones, and there are plenty of chips and salsa ready for new tables or refills. The customers today are almost all regulars – more so than usual. I see Shia and Alan arrive at the bar shortly after each other and introduce them to one another, and they get to chatting. Just drinks for the two of them. The generous Indian couple that likes their plates sizzling hot tips me a hundred percent of their bill. The two ladies who like to sit out back on the patio come in – it’s Anna’s turn to take a table, so I tell her that they’re easily persuaded into the $3 beer special. Around nine thirty, I step out to switch the open signs to close, but we still have a couple diners left.

Shia drinks his fourth beer at the bar. Two of his friends have joined him. Shia and I actually met a while back at a bar we both frequent. He’s an older gentleman with an affinity for Rubik’s cubes, lock picking, and martial arts. He’s a loyal customer, and comes in on Mondays when I work. We’ve become something like friends, so in between my hustling and bustling, I make a point to check on him and make sure he’s got everything he needs. Anna’s friends from her hometown, a couple, who’ve just arrived from New Hampshire, are also at the bar. She chats with them as she has her on-shift beer. Then, in walks the cranky older man who comes in for two enchiladas with green sauce and never tips. I tell him we’re closed, but Anna intervenes and says he can have a seat. I take my on-shift beer as well, and begin to do my closing tasks as I talk to Shia and his friends. Shia asks for another beer. We’re technically closed for sales, but I give it to him anyway, on me. His friend Dario says he’ll tell a joke after I leave, and Shia waves him off, saying incredulously, “She’s family!” It’s nearing ten, now, and I have to ask Shia and his friends to pay out their tab and head for the door. The old cranky guy takes off without a word, leaving exact cash for the bill. Anna’s friends stay behind, though, and wait for her to finish closing.

Anna asks if I’ve ever closed the bar, and I say no, so she talks me through the procedure. “It’s good to know how to do it, in case you’re stuck here, and you’re the only one who knows how.” She’s right, but I feel uncertain given a task that I’m unfamiliar with, so she walks me through each step. Lock the front door, then the storage room, then the back patio, check to see if anyone’s hiding in the alley, close-out the credit card machine, and then do my server check-out. I thank Anna for showing me the bar closing procedure, and all of her help today. I know I’ll do the same for Eduardo next Monday – we were both confused about it when we last closed together.

Tio’s Restaurant provides the context for the creation of varying sorts of relationships, all of which mimic or embody some tenet of what is commonly attributed to friendships. Our customers maintain varying relationships with the staff. Some consider us mere middlemen in the delivery of their meals, while others consider us “family.” In turn, we, too regard customers with varying levels of intimacy. We extend certain privileges to those whose loyalty we can depend on – I make Dennis a special basket of chips, give Shia a free beer after last call and Anna lets the cranky old man have dinner after we close – gestures that err closer to the motions of an intimate friendship than the contrived niceness that we dole out to other customers.

Generally, we employees seem to regard one another with more of a genuine concern for each other’s well-being and satisfaction – though this can vary as well. We complement each other’s work styles and support each other, depending not just on our official positions, but also on our unique skill-sets, experiences, and whatever the particular moment calls for. In this way, our roles with respect to one another oscillate. Helping one another in hectic moments helps us get along professionally in some cases, and mundane chitchatting during downtime might hint at the developing of a more meaningful friendship in other cases. In this way, the workplace provides a dynamic environment for the cultivating of various types of relationships, and in turn, both professional and personal chemistry with coworkers and customers helps to sustain the smooth flowing of the restaurant.

Finally, Anna and I walk to the staff room together. We both let out a sigh of relief marking the end of the workday. We clock out and I go to use the bathroom. When I come out, Anna and her friends, the couple from New Hampshire, are nowhere to be seen. I walk out and breathe the crisp night air, a pleasant change from the wafting, carne asada-infused humidity of the restaurant. As I walk down the avenue, I run into Eduardo in front of a local bar. “Hey, how was work today?” I tell him it was fine and that I’m just on my way to wait for the bus. He says not to bother, and texts his wife to ask if she won’t mind dropping me off. It’s out of their way, but it’s late, and he’d rather not see me take the bus alone.

 

 

Author’s Note: All names have been changed for the purpose of privacy.

Asian Americans in the Media and an Alternative Exploration of Asian-American Identity

This post was originally submitted as a Final Assignment for Professor William Drummond’s class, “The Wire: Where Journalism meets Drama,” in Spring 2012.

Asian Americans in the Media

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(Image credit: http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/04/24/who-does-hbo-hope-is-watching-girls/)

On the first episode of the much buzzed-about HBO show, Girls, the show’s white, early twenty-something protagonist, Hannah, confronts the boss at the publishing house she interns at to let him know that “her circumstances have changed.” Namely, these circumstances refer to her parents’ abrupt declaration that they are no longer willing to support her post-collegiate, non-income-earning, Brooklyn-living lifestyle. Hannah’s conversation with her boss introduces “Joy Lin,” a glasses and high-ponytail-wearing Asian girl whose knowledge of photoshop puts her a leg-up from Hannah in the post-Great Depression job market. Hannah and her her boss’ exchange goes like this:

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(Image Credit: http://girlscaps.tumblr.com/search/joy+lin)

[Hannah] I know that Joy Lin got hired after interning so I thought that maybe…

[Alistair] Hannah – Joy Lin knows photoshop. Now in this economy, do you know how many internship requests I get everyday.

I felt a perplexing sting. There I was, Korean-American, three weeks away from graduating from Berkeley with a liberal arts degree, and guilty of the same sense of entitlement Hannah’s indignant response to her parents’ discontinuation of supporting her, displays. And yet, with one quippy exchange, I felt suddenly alienated the protagonist’s reality that I had so readily related with before. The implication was clear: In 2012, nerdy Asian American girls like me don’t have preoccupations with the lack of post-collegiate job opportunities because our lifetimes of studious diligence and navigational know-how of the education system prepare us to pull out the occupational carpet from under deserving white, female graduates like Hannah.

In recent months, Girls has been the object of much criticism based on not only its lack of non-white protagonists, but also the ease with which it unquestioningly reproduces racial stereotypes for the few persons of color it does depict. Anna Holmes recounts some of these characters in her New Yorker critique of the show:

In the pilot, we meet Joy Lin, a bespectacled, goody-goody Asian-American girl who is chosen over Hannah for a job at the publishing house where they are both intern because she has better computer-design skills. There’s also a black “homeless guy” who entreats Hannah to smile as she makes her way from her parents’ midtown hotel back to her Brooklyn apartment.

While Girls’ complicated and nuanced white female protagonists so effectively demonstrate a range of early twenties, girls-cum-women’s dialectically independent and dependent personhoods, it also embodies a feminism vs. racism paradigm so often accused of reproducing the rhetoric of oppression (see Bell Hooks). I will not go on to detail all the similar criticisms of the show. However, some other compelling ones have appeared on The Hairpin and The Huffington Post.

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(“Su-Chin is the teenaged Asian girl who stands outside in the cold alone at an abortion clinic. She holds a picket sign and tells Juno that her unborn baby now has finger nails. This part makes Su-Chin kind of look like a loser asshole, dim Conservative as compared to Juno’s hip and modern sensibilities.”)

For the most part, though, I agree with Holmes’ sense that some peoples’ aggravation over Girls’ racial depictions should be directed more to the people and institutions that have created the conditions for such a commonplace media practice than to the doe-eyed, twenty-five year old show’s creator. Indeed, the media depiction of Asian Americans as nerdy representatives of minority exceptions to the highly problematic rule of the white, male-dominated model of American success is nothing new, and Lena Dunham, in fact, does a nice job of creating an insightful, relate-able television show that chronicles her own experience, at the very least.

Hipster Racism

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(Me, left, circa 2007, in an embarrassingly unwitting display of hipster racism)

On the other hand, the show’s crass racial depictions may be more endemic to a generational ignorance of how to approach a racial discomfort rooted in events of our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes. In the recent blogosphere, this ignorance has been named ‘hipster racism.’ According to Racialicious.com, a site that claims the term to have been first coined by one of its bloggers to in 2005, hipster racism refers to the phenomenon of youthful millenials who ironically reproduce the images and tropes of racism circa our parents’ generation (think white girls flashing gang signs; casual usage of the words nigger, ghetto, or ebonics; making racist jokes) in order to collectively declare that racism is dead and they live in an age beyond the white/black spatial imaginaries described by George Lipsitz. In a recent LA Times article, Matt Pearce asks:

Is hipster racism real? Is it any different from more traditional racism? Or is all this talk just the byproduct of a generation that barely remembers Rodney King and O.J. Simpson and has no idea how to talk about race?

I would argue that millenials’ ignorance of racial events like the Los Angeles 1992 riots should not detract from the reality of hipster racism so much as explain precisely why it exists. Racial controversies of today like Linsanity, Kony 2012, Trayvon Martin, and Girls, illustrate that racism does still exists in today’s cultural dialogue. However, when confronted with such racial controversy, early twenty something like myself remain ill-equipped to address them, in contrast to the supposed racial sensibility of some present during the civil rights movement or 1992 L.A. Riots. Instead, we are bombarded with still-remaining images of ethnic stereotypes in the media. The continuous reproduction of these stereotypical images leads us to believe that such prejudices derive from the ‘reality’ of our primal, cultural otherness, rather than as the result of decades of political, and economic, systemic oppression, buried in a history left untold by television shows and hasty reporting. As a result, my early navigation of my Asian American identity throughout my adolescence remained much trapped within the prevalent media discourse of Asian Americanness – whether it was others’ characterization of me with the same rhetoric perpetuated by media portrayals of Asian stereotypes or my subsequent attempts to break from this mold.

Early Experiences of Being Asian-American

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Me and a friend in front of Walter Reed Middle School

I grew up in a relatively wealthy suburb of Los Angeles, called Studio City, in the San Fernando Valley. There, I attended Walter Reed Middle School. As a whole, Walter Reed was Latino/a majority environment, albeit the existence of a smaller, mostly-white demographic in an exclusive ‘highly-gifted’ program of which I was a part. As such, images of being the only Asian in my group of mostly white friends abound in my memories of middle school. Many of these friends often referred to my Asianness in disparaging remarks. I recall many jokes made at my expense that invoked the following stereotypes: Asians’ studious nature; Asians’ affinity for rice; Asian women’s inability to drive; Asian slanted eyes; etc. These elementary attempts to poke fun were more adolescent revelry than malice, but still symptom of the white spatial imaginary. In a recent conversation with a middle school friend, he asked, “Did you experience any racism growing up?” – a testament to how unaware of and unburdened by these mundane, but pernicious tropes of racial oppression most of my white peers were.

Despite these comments’ lack of malicious intent, I still took them to heart. In high school, I did everything I could to make myself look, act, and feel like my white peers, while rejecting most everything others had attributed to my Asianness. For example, I mimicked the polo shirt-wearing, pearls-donning attire of my affluent, white peers at my New England boarding school. I began to skip classes and my grades slipped as I spent most days holed up in my messy dorm room. I began to despise Korean food and rejected my mother’s offers of kimchi when I returned home over breaks. Meanwhile, my high school friends still relied on the dominant circulating stereotypes of Asians in the media. Whether or not my high school denial of stereotypical Asianness was a conscious rejection, my transformation represented a greater process of discovering my own identity in which traditional views of Asianness played a large part. However, despite my endeavors to unshackle myself from the tethers of Asian nerdiness or alleged Korean cultural norms, I only unwittingly reproduced the media discourse of Asiannesss by defining myself with everything Asian American’s supposedly were not. As such, I came to espouse an adopted white identity and left the books, rice, kimchi, and bad driving for other Asians to embody.

Towards an Alternate Exploration of Asian-American Identity

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From left: my great-aunt, my grandmother, and my mother

In college, I still struggle to understand where Asian American identity comes to bear in the highly subconscious process of identity-making where political questions of ethnic discourse often work to make sense of things only in hindsight. However, some recent experiences shed light on my own personal process. In the Spring of 2011, I wrote a paper on role of military prostitution in South Korean development. In doing so, I accidentally unearthed one context of my familial history that wove a fragile thread between my current self of my parents’ mother nation. In my research, I discovered that the diaspora of South Koreans to Los Angeles, California during the eighties resulted largely from the relationships of Korean, military camptown prostitutes with white, male, American G.I.’s. When I asked my mother about this, she told me that her family, too, had immigrated as a result of this phenomenon. During the Korean War, my mother’s aunt met an American G.I. in a military camptown where she had been a grocery store accountant. My grandparents were only granted a visa to immigrate to the United States because of their connection to my great aunt. In addition, Grace Cho, discusses how the collective forgetting of these prostitutes’ forsaken past identities allowed them to occupy more meaningful roles in society during their latter lives in the United States. Below, I excerpt part of my paper:

          Meanwhile, recent discourses of the camptown women have sought to move away from the masculinist, nationalist-oriented discourses of the 1980s, and argue from the perspective of the prostitutes. One such discussion comes from Grace Cho, who writes, “For feminists especially, the [camptown prostitute] became a site of negotiating meanings about female subjectivity in the Korean diaspora, about investing the female subject with the capacity to negotiate her own meanings” (Cho 2008: 119). Here, Cho’s argument accounts for the hundred thousand women who have migrated to the United States through marriage to U.S. servicemen. She argues that military brides are the “invisible backbone of the Korean American community” in that sponsorship by one of these hundred thousand women was the most common route for Korean immigrants to the U.S. since the Korean War (Cho 2008: 140). She argues that decades of marginalization of the camptown prostitutes, the collective ‘forgetting’ of their identities, has become part of the Korean adoption of the ‘American Dream.’ The Korean camptown prostitutes of the 1970s an 1980s viewed either death or marriage to an American as the sole means of escaping camptown lives. These routes are more linked than they appear since in marriage, the women often laid to rest their old identities in shame and embarrassment, and as a condition of achieving the American dream. She writes,

…perhaps it is the Korean diaspora that has been most physically invested in reading her mutually inconsistent fragments through a project of memory that projects a new image into the space of what has been forgotten…[this] diasporic “frame of cultural identity [is] determined not through ‘return’ but through difference,” and therefore her haunting effects have been uneven. Some would seek to find this woman by creating a vision of her, and others would reject her, for not seeing her is a condition of the American dream. (125)

And so, it is in the loss of self-definition that the Korean camptown prostitute is finally imbued with her own agency. Her escape from camptown life and purposeful shedding her old identity give birth to a new generation of Korean Americans defined by the absence of the scarlet letter worn by their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts in Cho’s narrative.

It is in this discovery that I relate most to my Asianness. In a familial, place-oriented history where my mother, grandmother, and great aunt all have agency in determining their own ethnic identities. In this historicized account of how my family came to exist from one place to another, I can define, for myself, a racial identity that accounts for my ethnic history and creates a space for me be at once: female, independent, intelligent, and Asian. I think it is with the confidence gleaned from truly knowing how and why I became Asian-American, that I can watch shows like ‘Girls,’ and still relate to its all-white protagonists. Because I can trace at least part of my ethnic and racial heritage through events in which my family members actually played active roles, I no longer watch television shows in a subconscious search for my own identity. Just as the Lipsitz finds the antidote to the white/black spatial imaginary through the inspiring tales of its victims’ self-empowerment, so, too, do I finally start to discover an Asian-American identity that truly feels my own through the histories of my mother, grandmother, and great aunts’ overcoming their own oppression.

Trapped in the White Spatial Imaginary: SmartMoves, Jean Quan, and The Wire

This post was originally submitted as a Midterm Assignment for Professor William Drummond’s class, “The Wire: Where Journalism meets Drama,” in Spring 2012.

 

As I pull off the freeway and drive down 98th avenue, I am greeted by a sunny, but desolate landscape. The streets of East Oakland seem barren of people despite the sunny weather. The neighborhood is lined with the fading signs of convenience stores and decrepit houses. I almost pass the East Oakland Boxing Association (EOBA) upon first arriving, and barely notice a colorful mural painted on its outside walls.

SmartMoves

Built in an old warehouse space, the EOBA could easily be overlooked amongst the neighboring nondescript building fronts on the 800 block of 98th Avenue in East Oakland. Started in 1987 by professional boxer Stanley Garcia as a way of keeping youth off the streets, the gym has since expanded its function to include SmartMoves – a program that “focuses on building self-esteem through youth development activities that link academic support with mentoring, art, nutrition education, gardening, community service, field trips, and physical education for youth ages 5-13,” as stated on its website.

Six years ago, Pepe Villarreal’s mother enrolled her reluctant son into the SmartMoves program. At the time, Pepe had been more anxious to hang out with his friends after school, but gradually became more and more involved in the gym. He found that participating in the boxing camps helped him deal with the everyday anxiety of attending public high school in East Oakland. While he saw some of his other friends get their girlfriends pregnant, Pepe became less afraid of the constant threat of violence at Castlemont High and increasingly interested in attending college. Today, he serves as a youth intern for SmartMoves and routinely supervises activities for the youth enrolled in the program.

Another participant, 23-year-old, Angel Martinez, also joined the gym at an older age. After tiring of playing for a private youth soccer league, he sought out the gym as a way to focus on a more individualized athletic activity. Prior to attending the gym, Angel didn’t know what to make of his future. He spent his time hanging out with gangs and friends who ended up in prison on charges of murder and attempted murder due to their gang affiliations. Angel said that talking to people at SmartMoves made him aspire to attend college and become a high school teacher in East Oakland. Today, he attends Bakersfield College and still visits the gym. Angel is a third-generation East Oakland resident and the son of a former AC Transit Parts Clerk who was recently laid off. Nevertheless, Angel cites his father as one of his main role models, a constant presence in his life who urged Angel to enroll in college from a young age.

For youth growing up in East Oakland like Pepe and Angel, SmartMoves provides a safe respite from the alternative of criminal activity, especially in the after-school hours and summer time when crime amongst youth tends to pique. In fact, what SmartMoves achieves goes beyond the demographic of youth through its monthly cooperation with food banks to distribute food to families that live in the nearby community. Moreover, its educational program on gardening and nutrition certainly speaks to a larger discourse of global food insecurity that points to local food production as one key solution.

Trouble in Paradise

However, for all of SmartMoves’ successes, several dark clouds loom over its sunny existence. Untimely demises have punctuated and threatened the organization’s recent existence and point to a systemic violence and corruption that permeates within and beyond the walls of the EOBA. For one, youth’s family and friends remain subject to violent crime outside the organization’s walls. One article writes that one of Pepe’s friends, sixteen-year-old Phillip Wright was shot to his death three years ago after opening the door for an individual looking for someone else. The same article cites the death of Smart Moves youth intern’s father just four months ago. The intern, sixteen-year-old Frank Hartwell IV, had been attending SmartMoves since he was six-years-old.

In addition to these deaths, the passing of beloved founders and essential members of SmartMoves leadership: Stanley Garcia (founder), Frank Rose (board president), and Paul Wright (head trainer) in 2010, 2011, and 2009 (respectively), led to an uncertain future for the EOBA. Angel told us that subsequent to the passing away of the EOBA’s founders, new management had been siphoning off the organization’s grant money into their own pockets.

The Bigger Picture

Most recently, SmartMoves gained its footing once again after East Oakland native and new executive director, Sara Chavez sent out a “desperate SOS” and media blitz in order to raise the necessary $200,000 in order to keep the program afloat. No doubt, Chavez’s previous employment at the City of Oakland helped secure a major chunk of the necessary funding in a city grant for nutrition and obesity programs. However, the city’s interest in SmartMoves may come from an initiative other than Chavez’s plea. Since election, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has emphasized youth intervention as part and parcel of her Safe and Healthy Oakland strategy. This strategy seeks to decrease crime in Oakland by providing youth positive alternatives like SmartMoves and advocating neighborhood crime prevention councils. In October of last year, Quan introduced her 100-blocks strategy to “Make Oakland Safe” by increasing the police presence in neighborhoods with the highest rates of violent crime. Quan’s prescription of heightened police presence demonstrates not only the television watcher’s obsession with policing, but also the dominance of law enforcement in middle-upper-class supported politicians’ rhetoric.

In fact, Quan’s strategy for a Safe and Healthy Oakland incarcerates her in precisely the same White Spatial Imaginary in which George Lipsitz finds the creators the Wire. Both Quan and the creators of The Wire approach systemic violence and the ensuing poverty from the perspective of law enforcement. Although Quan and David Simon differ vastly on the issue: the former prescribes policing as part of the solution and the latter points to the futility of law enforcement to change the circumstance of metropolitan ghettos, each finds her/himself in trapped in the White Spatial Imaginary. Regarding the creator’s of The Wire, Lipsitz writes:

The Wire is relentlessly on target in exposing the bureaucratic imperatives and dysfunctional contradictions of police work, teaching, and journalism. Yet the firsthand experience that enables the creators of The Wire to critique these institutions so effectively does not enable them to step back see how these institutions are the products of racialized space and possess racial and spatial imaginaries… In this respect, The Wire’s pessimism about solving urban problems is a symptom of prevailing power relations, not a critique of them. (110)

Similarly, Quan’s proposed measures of volunteerism, goodwill, and law enforcement as solutions to Oakland’s crime are efforts to deal with symptoms of systemic violence, instead of uproot it. SFGate writer, Chip Johnson astutely points out:

Volunteerism and goodwill are the fruit, not the seed, of public safety efforts. Even law-abiding citizens with good intentions aren’t going to risk life and limb in areas of the city where the police don’t feel safe. It’s a lot safer – and easier – to place a “Free Tibet” bumper sticker on your car than to venture into the most lawless sections of East Oakland and free a local resident.

In this sense, David Simon’s The Wire can be seen as “political,” insofar as it promotes the same middle-class voyeurism of systemic violence and poverty as Quan’s strategy for a Safe and Healthy Oakland. In Simon’s case, he presents his viewer with a hopeless picture of the West Baltimore ghetto where neither cop, criminal, nor politician can change the hapless system that cycles youth into lives of crime. Here, the viewer is led to continued frustration through the unresolved tension in storylines and exceedingly slow burn of ‘progress’ throughout the seasons without the grand indictment and resolution brought about by other television programs about crime and police. Without the historic, political, economic context of poverty in West Baltimore, the viewer is left with little device to envision or enact change upon racial poverty and crime. For Quan’s part, she appeals to the feel-good humanitarianism of a liberal demographic that believes that systemic violence can be uprooted by the hand of afterschool programs and neighborhood crime watches. Quan’s voters are led to indulge their humanitarian sensibilities without unearthing the roots of a systemic violence paved onto streets that existed long before her term.

Concluding Thoughts

As I finish my field work at the EOBA, I am struck by Pepe and Angel’s touching stories. At 23-years-old, Angel could easily have been a peer or friend of mine, if not for the accidental circumstances of our births. I am inspired to get involved and consider coming back for a second visit. But as I drive onto the freeway onramp and East Oakland fades behind me, my thoughts are easily distracted by my responsibilities as a student at UC Berkeley, and my job search as a graduating senior. I do not think about Pepe and Angel again, until working on this assignment, when I realize that I, too, am complicit in the White Spatial Imaginary.

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